Lets not beat around the bush; the best guitar riffs should be judged by the intensity of the stink faces that they inspire. If you only look like you just received a minor crop dusting, that’s amateur hour. No, the greatest riffs make you feel like a total badass, but also make your face contort like you just got a whiff of a sewer rat on a strict diet of sauerkraut and boiled eggs.
Compilations that claim to be objective representations of the truly greatest riffs ever recorded are preposterous, as there are approximately 666 billion riffs in recorded history. This is an unrepentantly biased and personal list. These are my favorites, so nobody can tell me I’m wrong.
“She Who Mars The Skin Of Gods” – Protest The Hero
Protest The Hero are known less for their sick riffs and more for their perpetual noodling and the impassioned wails of vocalist Rody Walker. Their debut album, “Kezia,” is an emotional rollercoaster that never relents with its barrage of notes and feelings, so when they lay into the riff at around 1:23, it hits so much harder. It’s a great riff for sure, but given the context, it takes on much greater meaning. You’re grooving now, but you’ll be crying in about a minute and a half.
“Anesthetize” – Porcupine Tree
Steven Wilson and the gang don’t generally drop huge riffs on us, but when they do, they make them count. About a third of the way into this lumbering behemoth of a song, they hit us with this gem. They had been building the tension for ages, and the release is completely worthwhile. Even though the song gets poop-your-pants levels of heavy a little later, the delivery on the anticipation is what really grabs me. It also bought me a nice paper of adult diapers.
“At Dawn” – Oceans Of Slumber
It’s one thing to give me the old stink face, but to render my nipples ceaselessly erect at the same time? Now that’s something else entirely. While the riff itself is tasty in its own right, it’s elevated to unparalleled heights by the haunting cries of vocalist Cammie Gilbert. I wasn’t ready for it when I first heard it, and I’m still not ready for it now.
“A Dream In Static” – Earthside Featuring Daniel Tompkins
A song this beautiful has no business breaking my neck like this, but here we are. Earthside’s debut (and as of right now, only) album is replete with some of the most cinematic and immaculately produced music you’ll ever hear, but they also know when to drop the hammer, when to lay the pipe, so to speak. The ethereal vocals of Tompkins may be the star of the show, but that nasty riff certainly steals a few scenes.
“Setting Fire To Sleeping Giants” – The Dillinger Escape Plan
If you’ve never had the pleasure of getting acquainted with this band, or the mathcore genre as a whole, listening to it feels a bit like scooping out your brain and putting it in a blender. Grey matter smoothies are an acquired taste. While most of the track sees the band at a relatively radio-friendly level, the riff that comes in about halfway through is pure, dissonant blissful insanity. Welcome the madness. Bring some Tylenol.
“Water’s Edge” – Caligula’s Horse
As demonstrated by many of the entries on this list, dynamics and contrast are essential pieces of the puzzle. If a riff is played in the woods and no one is around to make a stink face, did it even make a sound? The second track from their second album is a plodding, emotional ballad. Until it isn’t. After five or so minutes of peace, guitarist Sam Vallen pulls this monster out of his ass. I’ve cycled through several different jokes about doodoo and bidets, but I think I need to class things up a bit. WWCD — What Would Caligula Do?
“Prequel To The Sequel” – Between The Buried And Me
I’ve held my inner fanboy at bay for as long as I could, but I just couldn’t resist anymore. These mad scientists from North Carolina are my favorite band of all time, and to leave them off this list would have been an act of self-repression that would make a priest blush. Riffs aren’t really the first thing that comes to mind when I think about them (I’m referring to the band, not priests, although I suppose that applies to them as well), but the intro riff to this ridiculously named track just can’t be ignored.
“Betrayed” – Avenged Sevenfold
In order to prove that I’m not a total elitist prog snob, I’ve included a deep cut from a very popular band. I do believe congratulations are in order. The main riff is just so trill that I had to go misappropriating a slang term just to make a labored pun. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that A7X is underrated by the underground community. They’re better than the neckbeards give them credit for. Just because they’ve sold millions of records and played on TRL doesn’t mean they aren’t good.
“The Last Baron” – Mastodon
It’s time to get those booty cheeks clapping! Including multiple picks from prog epics that eclipse ten minutes in length may seem like a bold move, but I sure do enjoy the smell of my own farts. I could’ve picked so many different Mastodon songs, like “March of the Fire Ants,” “Circle of Cysquatch” or of course the legendary “Blood and Thunder,” but I had to include at least one riff that astral projects itself directly into my glutes.
“My Famed Disappearing Act” – Thank You Scientist
What would happen if you reanimated Michael Jackson’s corpse and made it hang out with a bunch of adult nerds? Thank You Scientist would happen. The closing track to their debut album, and all their live sets, punches you in the face right away, then proceeds to melt it right off. The fact that this band isn’t more commercially successful than it is proves that there’s no justice. There’s only entropy and tapping.
“Oroborus” – Gojira
Let’s stick with both tapping and bands that could have several entries on this list. Traditional wisdom might lean toward something like “Flying Whales” or “Toxic Garbage Island” but nothing lifts me up quite like this opening riff. I like my environmental activism to make me two-step like a damn fool, and only Gojira has me covered for that.
“G.O.A.T.” – Polyphia
If only there were some sort of handy acronym that expresses just how good this riff is. I truly don’t need to say anything else about it. It speaks for itself.
“Hessian Peel” – Opeth
While this list wasn’t in any particular order, I did save my favorite for last. “Watershed” is Opeth’s best album, and that is a hill I’m willing to die on. It has their best song and their best riff. Anything that follows a guitar solo and an audacious grunt has to be good. Everyone laments the loss of Mikael Åkerfeldt’s growls, but we should be mourning the absence of these kinds of riffs.